If a newborn calf seemingly has trouble lifting its head and nursing, an injury, rather than weakness or an uncooperative dam, may be to blame.

Jessica Laurin, DVM, Animal Health Center of Marion Co., Marion, Kan., says if the cow is standing and pushes the calf out during calving, there is a chance for that calf to land on the head and neck, bending or causing a whiplash effect.

“There are probably different degrees of damage done,” Laurin says. “Some of these calves may look like oxygen-deprived or dummy calves, especially if there is swelling into the cranium or a concussion effect. Some have relatively minor damage, and the whiplash effect bruises or wrenches the neck and causes pain when the calf flexes its head upward in the position it needs to be to nurse.” Laurin says she sees calves like this about once every two or three years.

Practice Tips: A tip of the headThe producers note that the calf is not nursing its dam. Often there is no issue with walking, although the calf may be slow to move around. “It’s not interested in sucking, and it’s not being aggressive to be with the cow,” Laurin notes. “It will stand beside or away from the cow.”

Flex Test
You can put injury on your differential list with a simple test. Laurin picks the chin up and flexes the head back. “A normal calf may fight it but has strength in its back and neck and will stand normal. An affected calf will drop and fall down on its back legs.”

When Laurin believes an injury is at the root of the problem, she starts them on 2ml dexamethasone IM daily and bottle feeds them. “When we start bottle feeding, the calf is not eager to tip its head up, so we have to hold the bottle down a bit lower and use a large hole in the nipple so it drenches the calf,” she says. “I try to not tube feed these calves.

Laurin will keep this calf stalled in the clinic so it can be observed. Generally it takes about three days for the injury to resolve. “Once the calf is willing to put a firm suck on the bottle and tip its head up, it’s ready to go back to the cow.”